For nearly 30 minutes, embattled schools safety director Hamid Arabzadeh voiced the most explosive allegations heard in school-district headquarters for some time. He talked of district employees being on the take, of widespread mismanagement by district officials and of safety lapses that could well cost lives. School-board members listened intently, sometimes restively.
And when Arabzadeh was finished, they fired him.
The board's action, by a slim majority, is the latest chapter in a saga over safety and management issues at L.A. Unified that will take months, if not longer, to shake out. In short, Arabzadeh claims he's been terminated for being a whistle blower. School-district officials insist they fired him because of unacceptable performance on the job – but also authorized an internal investigation into Arabzadeh's allegations.
Arabzadeh's supporters characterized the entire proceeding as a triumph of status quo office politics over public safety, and of expedience over health. But a majority of school-board members ultimately concluded that Arabzadeh was tactically diverting a negative personnel evaluation into a debate over safety practices.
At the extraordinary personnel hearing Tuesday, school-board members had assembled to deliberate Arabzadeh's fate as director of the district's Environmental Health and Safety branch, a position he's held since August 1997. A substantial portion of the four-hour proceeding was conducted in public, at Arabzadeh's request.
Although the outcome surprised no one, the details, particularly the allegations made by Arabzadeh, were a series of actual and potential bombshells.
The 39-year-old Arabzadeh, in tones that varied from discomfort to outright distress, castigated senior administrators for refusing to implement basic safety programs. “We are endangering the public,” he told the school board. “We are endangering students. Look at this as my year-end report.”
He also accused senior staff of “environmental injustice,” asserting that they had saddled poor and minority neighborhoods with schools located on industrial, often contaminated, land. Such practices, he said, would never be allowed in more prosperous areas, such as the Westside.
In his wide-ranging remarks, Arabzadeh even touched on the controversial Belmont Learning Complex, the state's most expensive high-school-construction project, saying that environmental remediation on the site, a former oil field, had been mishandled, contributing to unnecessarily increased costs.
In sum, he told the school board, “We are going to have serious accidents. Fatalities. Ladies and gentlemen, this is no joke.”
Responses from board members ranged, for the most part, from frustration to dismissiveness. Following his warning about the imminent risk of injuries, board president Victoria M. Castro implied that Arabzadeh was taking too long, noting, “You've gone over 20 minutes.”
Board members David Tokofsky and Valerie Fields, on the other hand, expressed frustration with the vagueness of Arabzadeh's allegations. “You talk about corruption,” said Tokofsky. “I want to know who said what and when.” Tokofsky also insisted that Arabzadeh turn over the names of corroborating witnesses to whom he had alluded.
But Arabzadeh refused. He said he was willing to answer all questions fully, but only in closed session. Nor, he added, would he expose conscientious employees who could corroborate his allegations unless he felt certain they would be protected from retribution.
Board members promised protection, but Arabzadeh was not persuaded – at least not at Tuesday's session.
Nor were Arabzadeh's alleged transgressions aired in public. The school board agreed to an unusual format, half public, half private: Arabzadeh and his supporters testified in public; allegations by his critics were aired only behind closed doors. While this effectively skewed the testimony available to the public in Arabzadeh's favor, it also shielded Arabzadeh's accusers, along with any allegations against him, from scrutiny. Some of these allegations leaked out, however, through board member George Kiriyama, who asked Arabzadeh if he was “anti-women” and if he had failed to be available or punctual. Kiriyama also alluded to complaints that Arabzadeh had imposed group prayer on his staff.
Arabzadeh's attorney wouldn't discuss the allegations, but characterized them as “fabricated.”
Neither Arabzadeh nor his attorney were allowed to attend the closed session at which these allegations were reviewed. Also absent from the witness list were colleagues supportive of Arabzadeh. His attorney, Pamela Mozer, accused district administrators of intimidating witnesses by threatening their jobs and denying them the use of vacation time to appear on Arabzadeh's behalf. She singled out Dianne Doi, the interim head of Arabzadeh's department.
Doi, who was at the hearing, denied having threatened anyone. She asserted that no one had asked her for permission to attend. “I did indicate that if there were last-minute vacation requests, they would not be approved,” she said, unless an attorney requested a staff member to appear.
Despite the self-imposed limits of Arabzadeh's testimony, his impassioned remarks did hit some reasonably specific targets. He accused staff members of “sanitizing” and destroying public information. “Files have been missing when board members and investigators asked for them,” he said, adding that he'd been instructed by unnamed staffers to “spin” the school board and the press. The idea of shredding documents “was joked about in staff meetings,” he said.
He also denounced cronyism, and supervisors who told him, “Such and such is my friend. Make him happy.”
Overall, Arabzadeh painted a portrait of a district health and safety department that was going through the motions, rather than fulfilling its mission to protect the health and safety of students and staff.
He characterized the branch as unable to do more than “rubber stamp,” citing the example of the just-completed Jefferson Middle School, which sits adjacent to a toxic-waste site. “A staffer wrote in 1989 that we should do a thorough study” of the site prior to purchase. “Two managers turned that [recommendation] down,” he said.
Arabzadeh added that the entire dilemma – a costly school on a suspect site – might have been avoided had proper evaluations been performed in the first place.
District officials continue to insist that the school, which opened recently, is entirely safe, “cleaner than your back yard,” in the words of district spokesman Brad Sales. But on this issue, Arabzadeh had an ally in school-board member Barbara Boudreaux.
“They told me as a board member that everything was okay” at the Jefferson Middle School construction site, said Boudreaux. “I was lied to. We have been kept in the dark.” Boudreaux called Arabzadeh “a breath of fresh air,” adding, “This is a test case. I want Hamid's expertise and candor to stay.”
Boudreaux was joined in supporting Arabzadeh by a group of parents and public-health activists at the sparsely attended hearing. “As a parent I am outraged,” said community activist Melodie Dove. “Mr. Arabzadeh has worked diligently to protect children's health and safety.”
Parent and anti-pesticide crusader Robina Suwol called Arabzadeh “a hero” to parents and children, while environmentalist Christina Graves lauded Arabzadeh's understanding of pediatric toxicology, calling it unique among school officials. “I implore the board not to confuse politics with public health,” she said.
But the board majority was skeptical. Board member Valerie Fields went so far as to categorize Arabzadeh's undocumented allegations as “McCarthy tactics,” while her colleague Jeff Horton commented, “The employee has attempted to bring in a lot of other issues that I don't think are relevant.” He also referred to Arabzadeh's “fundamental lack of credibility.”
The board essentially sided with staff members who had urged his firing, including just-appointed “business czar” Dave Koch, who sat behind board members with a stony, worried expression during the entire proceedings.
To have sided with Arabzadeh would have been an immediate slap at Koch, who's in his first month as head of all district business operations, a job that has been designated as key to school-district reform efforts. Indeed, Arabzadeh's supporters have focused on Koch as one of the villains in the piece.
These backers included parents and environmental activists who have waged a campaign to reform and reduce pesticide use in the school district. In June, Arabzadeh had acted as a sympathetic liaison between the group and other district officials, apparently aggravating then-district business manager Koch.
In an interview, Koch told the Weekly that Arabzadeh was never appointed as liaison to the anti-pesticide group, saying that the appointment went instead to Dianne Doi, Arabzadeh's subordinate. Koch characterized any claim to the contrary as “self-promotion” on Arabzadeh's part.
“That's baloney,” responded attorney Ashley Posner, one of the parents opposed to pesticides.
The dispute over meeting with the parents happened at a critical time in Arabzadeh's tenure with the school district. Less than a week after that meeting, Arabzadeh testified briefly before the Joint Legislative Audit Committee in Sacramento regarding Jefferson Middle School and other issues. Before returning to Los Angeles, he visited the San Francisco school district to study its alternative pest-control program. His next full day at work, said Arabzadeh in an earlier interview, he was asked to leave. But he won't say by whom.
District officials have countered that Arabzadeh had agreed, months previously, to resign because of problems related to his job performance. Arabzadeh, they said, reneged on that verbal agreement, leading to Tuesday's hearing.
School-board member Julie Korenstein acknowledged having asked Arabzadeh to work with the anti-pesticide parents, but at the hearing, did not side with Arabzadeh against the highly regarded Koch, and ultimately abstained in the vote for Arabzadeh's dismissal. She was joined by David Tokofsky. Barbara Boudreaux alone voted against the dismissal, and the remaining four board members carried the day.
Arabzadeh's attorney vowed to immediately sue the district for defamation, wrongful termination, and violating state and federal whistle blower-protection statutes. Arabzadeh is probably just the second branch manager in 15 years to lose his job at the end of the one-year probationary period, said classified personnel director John Campbell.
In a post-vote press conference during which Arabzadeh thanked supporters, he began looking around uneasily. The crush had hemmed him and his lawyer in the hallway just outside the constantly swinging doors of the school-board chambers. “This isn't a good situation,” he said. “Let's move. This isn't safe.”
Correction: Last week's article on Arabzadeh's pending dismissal incorrectly stated that he'd been a student activist against the shah of Iran. The Weekly regrets the error.